The story intertwines the stories of three women from adjacent generations. Born into a wealthy London family, Jessie Beaufoy follows her heart and marries a handsome artist, only to have him abandon her on the final day of their honeymoon in Finistère on the Brittany coast. An eternal romantic, Jessie is despondent and longs to find him again – but her reduced circumstances and the corresponding shame persuade her to accept a role as muse to a famous painter in postwar Paris and on the Riviera.
Twenty years later, gregarious Baba MacLeod escapes London for a career in Hollywood, reinventing herself as an actor’s personal assistant and, later, as film star Lisa La Touche. Although she becomes a household name, she’s devastated by the rampant hypocrisy and the codes of conduct she’s obliged to adhere to. Finally, in the mid-1960s, Cat leaves her beloved parents in rural Connemara, Ireland, to become a war photographer.
Threaded like a silver chain through both Jessie’s and Lisa’s stories is the theme of how women’s freedom is held in check by men. Only Cat, living through the more relaxed social norms of the 1960s, has the opportunity to direct her life as she chooses.
And, yes – the dress on the cover. One other element linking the women is a custom-designed crepe de Chine gown from Liberty of London that’s “tiered like a Grecian tunic: a classic Doric column when one stood still in motion, a swirl of colour – primrose and geranium and cornflower blue and moss green.” Although it doesn’t play a large role in the story, it comes to symbolize where they came from as well as their connectedness.
Liberty Silk is high-class literary entertainment. The author was inspired by letters sent home from Paris and Italy by Jessie Beaufoy, her grandmother, who must have been a remarkable woman. Her novel makes for a beautiful homage to the real-life Jessie and to all women who aim to follow their dreams.
The novel was published as a paperback original by Transworld Ireland in July (£6.99, 496pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.